Sergi was sent down for 15 years for smuggling caviar. In prison he became a poet and now he laughs at the new Russiansby Vanora Bennett / February 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
On the shore of the Caspian Sea you can, if you know the right people, have a poacher’s breakfast: a caviar sandwich. The poacher will hack a slice off a white loaf and smear it with freshly caught sturgeon roe. He might wave the inch-thick sandwich in your face, laughing through gold teeth. “How much would this cost in London… Thousands! So go on, eat it. It’s good for you. It’s power food.”
All you have to do is bash a female sturgeon on the head, slit her open, wash the roe in salted water and strain the eggs. The caviar is ready before the fish stops flapping. My friend Sergei Bodagovsky could do it in just over two minutes, but he was the grand master of caviar poachers. In 1982, he was accused in a Soviet court of stealing four tons of caviar. He had made an illegal profit of half a million roubles-the equivalent, in those days, of 430 years’ wages.
Sergei keeps one grainy photograph of those times. There’s sunlight in it, and a dark wild boy with a beaky nose, on a beach, grinning. He is wearing ragged cut-offs. He has a cigarette in his mouth. In one hand is a knife, in the other a huge sturgeon.
Today the swagger has gone. Sergei was 28 when he was arrested. His friend Rudolf was tried too and condemned to death: a bullet in the brain. Sergei got off lightly with a 15-year sentence. “When they read out the verdict,” he told me when I met him, years later, “everyone in court gasped in horror.”
We were in his sister’s shabby flat in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. Sergei is 46 now, careworn and fastidious, a little stooped, his voice filtered through bluish cigarette smoke. But the photo still made him grin. “Me, I’d been expecting execution,” he said. “So I sighed with relief.”
So much caviar, I said. Why had he taken the risk?
“Power and money,” he said. “In those days, I thought money was everything.”
Plenty of people still think that way in Dagestan. Life here is lived by the post-communist equation that money dishonestly acquired equals power. The legal economy is a shell. Regional cognac and carpet factories are at a standstill. But the streets are full of Mercedes, and a mysterious building boom has begun: fantasy mansions in the style of Walt Disney are springing up, with arched windows, jacuzzis, ten-foot-high garden walls and overwrought ironwork. No one yet knows who will move in. But everyone knows that a new elite is forming in the Soviet ruins.